Why “spelling reform” is cultural vandalism

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Last Friday, in the Guardian, Simon Jenkins wrote that he welcomed the decision of the Scottish Qualifications Authority that they would accept text-message spellings in school examinations in “a direct challenge to the English at their most reactionary”. “The dark riders of archaism will protest and the backwoods will howl. No spell is cast as dire as spellcheck. But the champions of reason are massing north of the border and need our support,” he declares. This, he hopes, might set off some renewed interest in reforming spelling, the discussion of which “has become a no-go area, an intellectual tundra”.

Text messaging forms have their place, not least in text messages where you can only fit so many letters into your message. They exist to improve the flow of writing, as they do also in instant message conversations, to save time when using phones on which an S takes four key-presses, and to conserve space so as to get as many words as possible into those 160 character spaces. Shortenings such as the use of the letter 8 to symbolise the “ate” sound may not have been adapted from Braille, but they have been used in that medium for years, to reduce the use of letters, as Braille documents take up an awful lot of space. There are times and places for abbreviations, and standard written English is not the place to abbreviate common words.The last major English spelling reform, Jenkins informs us, was carried out by Noah Webster in the years after American independence:

When the great Noah Webster invented American spelling after independence, he left British English immured in bigotry. He chided “even well-bred people and scholars for surrendering their right of private judgment to literary governors”. To Americans, spelling reform was the sovereignty of common sense. For that reason the British treated it as foreign, vulgar and, worst of all, American.

In the rest of the article, however, Jenkins voices the usual complaints about silent consonants, unncessary vowels and multiple pronunciations of “ough”. “Every time I write cough, bough, through and thorough (not to mention write), I think of the teeming millions of students who ask their teachers: why? There is no answer. I suggest they learn American English instead.” The only difficulty is that American English has most of the same inconsistencies which frustrate learners of British English. American English is easier for some foreigners to learn probably because it lacks the flat R sound characteristic of middle-class and urban southern English, although even this exists in some American idioms. But it has its own fair share of oddities, such as pronouncing the letter T, mid-word, as a D. The “ough” variations still exist in US English. It’s still I before E, except after C. Reading over this paragraph, I can’t find a word I would have spelled differently if I were an American.

There are often good reasons why words are sometimes spelled the way they are, even if they are often historical ones. We spell doughnut that way because a doughnut is made of dough. Simple, right? To spell it “donut” is only appropriate when you desperately need to make room for more letters, but it should not be confused for proper English for the purpose of answering an academic exam question. Words which have a silent consonant or two often sound identical to a word with a different meaning (rite, without the W, being a religious practice). There are no doubt words whose spelling could be reformed without consequences worse than the present situation, but there is a simple answer teachers can give children or students who ask “why?” when struggling to learn a relatively few inconsistently-spelled English words: history. And perhaps they should actually teach them that history.

There are two separate reasons why we should resist radical spelling reforms. The first is that it risks codifying the pronunciation of English as spoken in one particular region, rather than English in general. For example, we pronounce colour as “culla” in London, while Americans tend to say “cuhlr”. Neither of them particularly resemble color or colour, both of them clinging to the tendency to spell Latin-derived words as they were spelled in Latin, rather than how they sound in English (a practice not replicated in actual Latin-derived languages such as Italian, in which letters are doubled and accents added as needed by its own speakers). However, if we were to go down the route of spelling things phonetically, we simply could not do it without making written London English incomprehensible to Americans, or even people in other parts of the British Isles. Do we leave the silent R’s in or take them out? Either way, they will only be phonetic on one side of the Atlantic. Right now, we have consistency and mutual intelligibility.

The second, more profound, reason is that it would constitute cultural vandalism on a grand scale. Learning to read and write English presently gives one access to a vast range of literature, which would have to be rendered into the new script in a huge transliteration effort, at huge cost, if future generations who learned the new writing method in primary school were to be able to read it. It is likely that some authors, who still held the copyright to their own works, would reject the new script, refuse to write in it or to allow their works to be published in it while their copyrights remained valid. Otherwise, the children would have to learn the present script as well, as “literary English”, in order to read a lot of classical English literature, which would defeat the whole object of inventing a new script.

It would thus cut off future generations of English-speakers from their history, which is usually what is intended when a language is radically reformed as Turkish was in the early 20th century. The cut-off there is such that young people cannot readily understand the early speeches of the author of those reforms, Kemal “Ataturk”. This is the equivalent of English-speakers being unable to understand the writings of the Edwardian period or Virginia Woolf, to say nothing of the classic literature of the preceding century. If we are really to go down the radical Shavian route of adopting a new alphabet, we would not only be cutting ourselves off from our past, but also from other speakers of European languages – an even more extreme cut-off than that which “Ataturk” perpetrated. If we want to know how easily such reforms could be effected in a democracy, we only need look at the German spelling reforms which were rejected by sections of the country’s press.

I’m not suggesting that there should be no reforms, simply that any reform should be incremental and not result in our being cut off from our literary heritage. Whatever might result might be dismissed as “tinkering around the edges”, but that’s all we can do if we are to avoid uprooting our entire culture. Of course, in a context where text-message language or some other colloquialism is used for literary effect in an examination, it should be rewarded rather than penalised, because it shows that the writer has insight into the situation he or she is writing about. But we should not permit such usages to be confused with proper literary English. If we are to allow academic examinations to be abandoned to such practices, then we abandon the principle that there are times and places where informality is appropriate and other times and places where it certainly is not.

  1. chris y said:

    Word. (Not werd.)

  2. G. Tingey said:

    One thing is certain, anyone who follows this route will NEVER be a scientist, and most especially not a chemist:
    Ethane, Ehene and Ethine are all similar, yet very different, and getting it wrong could kill someone.
    Ethane is C2H6
    Ethene is C2H4 – used to be called Ethane
    Ethine (used to be called Acetlylene) is

    I don’t know where these idiots come from ,but I wish they’d go back there!

  3. dearieme said:

    Goo, he’s so brave and out-of-the-box and subversive, isn’t he? Cool grandad, eh?

  4. Surely that’s ethyne not ethine.


    Yacht is so spelt because books were sent for typesetting in Bruges, and so were set by Dutch speakers with poor english. An English typesetter would have spelt it yott.

    What this illustrates is that the fixedness of spelling, and indeed of the alphabet, is a consequence of printing, not natural part of any heritage.

    The grossest errors of the past such as the yachts and the ‘oughs, should be corrected, perhaps missing letters, yogh and thorn restored if they would help. The letters J and V are recent, useful additions, nobody is calling for their abolition on the grounds of lack of heritage.

    If the history of spelling were taught, sensible children would be even more furious at the stupidity of maintaining it the way it is.

    Our children are 2 years behind their German peers in reading because we insist on this backwardness.

  5. Shuggy said:

    Jenkins says, “Thank you, Scotland. First John Knox, then the Enlightenment and now the Scottish Qualifications Authority.”

    Has he lost his marbles? Do you know what an “instrument of assessment” is? It’s a test. And an “extended written response” is a goddam essay. This is how the SQA talks. And it gets worse, much worse – believe you me. Enlightenment indeed!

  6. dearieme said:

    Oh, and ethene wasn’t formerly ethane, it was formerly ethylene. Also, the two key objections remain (1) We’d never agree on which pronunciation we’d use for standardisation. (I recommend mine: mellifluous and readily understood by furriners – unlike Cockney, Glaswegian, Oxford,….) (2) But even if we did, the agreement would be undone as the spoken language changed further.

  7. Yes, divergent pronunciations are an obstacle to complete standardisation. They are not an obstacle to correcting the grossest errors of English spelling.

  8. Bobb Dobbs said:

    Of course one of the classic ‘English’ authors, who’s words are taught as part of the English and Scottish curriculum, has already had his spelling standardized more than may be acceptable to one. Shakespeare.

    Perhaps the Scottish are trying to find a way to make Burns’ work more understandable to their population, a chance to rewrite it as has been done to old Shakey…

  9. And another ‘English’ author: George Bernard Shaw. Like Dearieme, I think the chemical formulae above are correct, but the spellings of their names wrong.

  10. Sandy said:

    Changing our spelling system is one thing – accepting text-spelling another. We should not confuse the two.

    But if we get to the stage of ‘modern’ written languages such as Arabic and Hebrew, which prefer to drop vowels when spelling the word, it could be interesting. The above might read something like this…

    Chngng or splng systm is on thng – accptng txt-spling anthr. We shld nt cnfse the two.

    Bt if we gt to the stg of ‘mdrn’ wrtn lnggs sch as Arbc and Hbrw, whch prefer to drp vwls whn splng the wrd, it cld be intrstng. The abv mght rd smthng lk ths…

  11. Katherine said:

    The example of “8” for “ate” or “ait” is an interesting one, since it suggests the possibility of a new letter entering the language. Also “@” for “at”. I rather like that. But that is about text spelling rather than spelling reform. As many others have said, the two are entirely different issues.

    And on the issue of spelling reform, British English is one of the few to have never really had any official spelling body and I think it is richer for it. Just who would be the correcting body? We have no commission or authority like the French. English’s greatest strength has always been its flexibility and freedom. That comes with downsides, but I for one am prepared to accept those.

  12. Chris said:

    Languages evolve, if you try to stop them you end up like French which went from being the Lingua Franca to being an obscure European language.
    Spellings meaning and pronunciations have changed and will change and there is little you can do to stop them. Spell Checkers are the most obvious current brake on the advancement of language but these too will reflect usage and not the desire of linguistic Luddites.
    The purpose of language is to transmit ideas, anyone who gets hung up worrying about the format of the medium when it is the ideas that matters is a pedant.

  13. Katherine, what freedom? Use reformed spelling and you will fail your exams, suffer at work, and be thought an idiot.

    It doesn’t need an authority, it just needs a few publishers to show some leadership. Which I think they would do with the right sort of encouragement.

  14. Katherine said:

    For goodness sake Joe, over time spelling of English has changed a multitude of times and you know it. The fact that an individual who spells something incorrectly in an exam will be penalised for that doesn’t change that fact.

    And according to you, a publisher using a reformed spelling can effect change – so there is the freedom you were asking about. But it is evolutionary, not revolutionary. And that is the entire point of what I was trying to say – people calling for “spelling reform” have forgetten that English spelling has never been directed or constrained by any official body. It would be impossible to bring about a full scale systematic change without there being such a body and I personally would oppose such a thing. One of the main reasons that English is the flexible, expressive language that it is today is because it has never had such “direction”.

  15. Katherine, right, and all I’m saying is that it should continue to change, not become cast in stone according to a few of Dr Johnson’s whims, faux latinisation (colonel), and so on.

    The printing press has ossified what was a dynamic part of our culture.